Westwood activists escalated their campaign against a proposed high-rise development in their landmark neighborhood this week, posting the first of 500 black-and-yellow lawn signs bearing the message "Jack Weiss Stop Casden."
Weiss, the Los Angeles city councilman representing the area, has yet to take a stand on the $100-million Palazzo Westwood project, and leaders of five residents associations and the group Save Westwood Village say they are concerned that multimillionaire Alan Casden has amassed enough political clout to push his project to approval next month.
Weiss has received 78 political contributions totaling $32,300 from consultants, attorneys, lobbyists and subcontractors for Casden, including employees of the affiliated firms and their spouses, over the last three years, according to campaign finance reports. Records and interviews show that more than 30 of the contributions came from firms and employees of firms that are working on Palazzo Westwood. Casden has not personally contributed to Weiss.
Most of the contributions were to the 2001 Weiss campaign, and represented about 7% of the funds he raised then.
"We are at a disadvantage, because the councilman is not representing the residents -- he is representing the big developers and his campaign contribution constituency," said Mike Metcalfe, president of the Westwood Homeowners Assn.
Weiss has yet to take a position on the project, said his spokeswoman, Lisa Hansen. He is waiting for the results of the current environmental review, she said, and will meet with opposition leaders Sept. 16. Hansen said Weiss would base his decision on the merits of the project, not on contributors.
"Jack likes to have all of the information before he takes a position," she added.
Casden's partnership, Casden Glendon, is seeking city permission to build 350 luxury apartments over 115,000 square feet of stores and restaurants in two, five-story buildings at the southwest corner of Weyburn and Tiverton avenues. Casden has asked to be allowed to exceed height and density regulations for the 4.25-acre project.
Opponents say that the complex would be too big and too high, that it would worsen the area's traffic congestion and parking shortage and that its construction would mean closing one of Westwood Village's busiest streets -- Glendon Avenue, between Kinross Avenue and Weyburn -- for three years.
Hansen noted that Laura Lake, who heads Save Westwood Village and the Friends of Westwood, ran against Weiss for office, and that Sandy Brown, president of the Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Assn., headed the campaign of Tom Hayden in the 2001 election against Weiss.
Casden did not return calls seeking comment, but Richard Lichtenstein, his lobbyist on the project, said the mixed-use development would be very compatible with the surrounding community. "In general, the height is very proportional to the other structures around the site," he said, adding that the project would provide enough underground parking for users and make up for any reduction in street parking.
Lichtenstein and others in his office are among those who contributed to Weiss' campaign. Lichtenstein said the contributions had nothing to do with Casden, who he said had not requested the contribution. "Any nexus is coincidental," he said.
Opponents of the project have sharpened their focus on the campaign contributions from Casden's business associates to Weiss since the district attorney's office last week served search warrants on the Beverly Hills offices of Casden Properties and three other sites as part of an investigation into possible violations of campaign finance laws in the 2001 elections.
Investigators for the Public Integrity Unit of the district attorney's office and the Los Angeles Ethics Commission are looking into whether subcontractors for Casden have been reimbursed for political contributions made to city candidates, according to sources.
Casden, a leading contender to buy the Dodgers, has denied wrongdoing. He said the warrant served at his offices targeted the computer and records of a vice president of his firm. Casden also said authorities had told him that he was not a target of the investigation.
Subcontractors questioned by authorities contributed to the 2001 mayoral campaign of Kathleen Connell and to the campaigns of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and council members Wendy Greuel, Tom LaBonge and Weiss.
Nearly half the contributions from Casden business associates -- 36 -- were received by the Weiss campaign on two days, in February and May 2001.
Most of the 78 contributions to Weiss from Casden associates over the last three years have come from companies listed in city building permits and other records as having worked on Casden construction projects. The heads of four Casden subcontractors who donated to Weiss said that they had made the contributions independently of Casden and that they had not been reimbursed by anyone
Contributions also came from 12 attorneys at Manatt Phelps Phillips, the law firm that has represented Casden in dealings with the city on the Palazzo project and that is registered as one of two firms serving as lobbyist for the developer in Westwood.
In addition, Weiss received 17 contributions from consultants hired by Casden to prepare the environmental impact report for the project, records show.
Bruce Shaffer, co-owner of Starlight Shower Door in Anaheim, another longtime subcontractor of Casden's, said he had told Ethics Commission officials that he had not been reimbursed for contributions made.
As for the Ethics Commission's questioning him, Shaffer said: "I guess they are trying to justify their existence. They are probably trying to muddy the water for Alan Casden. They always want the guy on top."